In This Review

Edith Wharton
Edith Wharton
By Hermione Lee
Knopf, 2007, 896 pp
Purchase

Lee's magisterial biography of the novelist Edith Wharton is not only an important contribution to American literary studies; it also offers students of U.S. foreign policy useful insights into how cultivated, intelligent Americans came to see their relationship toward Europe as the United States began to flex its muscles as a world power. One of a handful of people admired by both Henry James and Theodore Roosevelt, the New York-born Wharton spent most of her adult life in Europe, ultimately settling in France. Like James, she wrote novels that turned on the differences in character and values between the Old World and the New; like James, she passionately argued for early U.S. intervention in World War I. James took out British citizenship during the war; Wharton remained an American but became famous in France for the whirlwind of charitable activities in which she was engaged. As a divorced American woman who penetrated into the heart of French literary and aristocratic society, she is a remarkable figure; her exquisite sensibility, turned to the contrasts between Europe and the United States, produced books and short stories that still today help illuminate the complex transatlantic relationship.